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Ex-SS guard convicted in Germany's 'last' Holocaust trial

July 23, 2020

A 93-year-old former Nazi SS concentration camp guard has been found guilty of accessory to murder and handed a suspended sentence of two years. This may be the last verdict on a Holocaust perpetrator in a German court.

Bruno D. in court
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Heimken

Bruno D. was convicted of 5,232 cases of accessory to murder on Thursday for his service in the Stutthof concentration camp, where thousands died of illness and execution during its six-year existence. Some 40 survivors and relatives of victims acted as co-plaintiffs in the case, and many of them testified in court during the trial, which lasted 44 days.

The judge acknowledged the former SS guard's willingness to take part in the trial and listen to the testimony of victims, but said he refused to recognize his own guilt right until the end. "You saw yourself as an observer," she said.

Read more: Nazi camp survivor recalls Stutthof horrors

Judge Anne Meier-Göring also flatly contradicted Bruno D.'s claim, made in his final statement, that he would not have stayed at Stutthof if he had seen a way out. "That is not true," she said. "You didn't look for a way out."

The judge similarly rejected claims that Bruno D. did not know what people in the camp were dying of, and that he was not aware of the cruelty and executions, though he did on one occasion admit he heard screams from a gas chamber. "Of course you knew what the people died of. They died of the human hell of Stutthof," she said.The nine-month trial presented something of a surreal spectacle: It was held in a young offenders' court since Bruno D. was only 17 when he began his yearlong service as guard at the Stutthof concentration camp in August 1944.

But the 76 intervening years were not legally relevant. There is no statute of limitations on murder in Germany, and being a guard at a concentration camp is sufficient for prosecution, thanks to a precedent set in the case of John Demjanjuk in 2011.

Rosa Bloch
89-year-old Rosa Bloch survived Stutthof at the age of 14 and testified in Hamburg, vowing never to forgive.Image: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Reinhardt

Reactions to the verdict

The verdict was not witnessed by any of the co-plaintiffs, who, according to their lawyers, largely stayed away because of the risk of travel during the coronavirus pandemic.

"They will welcome this verdict. For them it's not about revenge," said Stefan Lode, who represented former prisoners from the US and Israel. For that reason, Lode thought that his clients would be satisfied with the sentence, even if it was just a suspended one. "No one wanted to send an old man to prison," he said. "Human dignity would prevent that."

But Christoph Rückel said that his clients might not agree with that. "I expect they will be satisfied with the guilty verdict, but the fact that the sentence was suspended, not so satisfied, I think," he told DW. "Because that sends a signal of laxity that I think is not appropriate for a crime like this. The court said itself that if he'd been in court in 1982 he would have been punished more severely."

Henri Zajdenwerger | Protest Deutsche Bahn
Survivor Henri Zajdenwerger took the opportunity to testify and tell his story in a German courtImage: Getty Images/R. Orlowski

One of Rückel's clients, 92-year-old Henri Zajdenwerger, testified in February about his horrific transport from France, to Lithuania, and then to Stutthof, and the beatings and executions he witnessed there. He had been made to fell trees, and seen people dying of hunger and exhaustion around him. Asked by the judge whether he would like to say anything to Bruno D., Zajdenwerger declined.

"It was extremely important to him," Rückel remembered on Thursday. "He was very nervous the night before, didn't sleep well, but after he had made his statement, he said he had this good feeling because he'd finally been able to say something about these murderous deeds in a German court." Two of Rückel's clients died before the trial began.

The defense

The defense rested on Bruno D.'s unimportance in the concentration camp system. In his summing up on Monday, the attorney Stefan Waterkamp argued that simply being an SS guard had never been a crime in Germany before, and that standing in a guard tower had no bearing on the 5,230 deaths inside the camp. These and all the other crimes, Waterkamp said, were carried out by the so-called "camp SS," a small core of personnel who had access to the prisoners.

Bruno D. himself also spoke during the trial. "Today I would like to apologize to those who went through this hell of madness, and their relatives – something like this can never be repeated," he said in his final statement on Monday.

Read more: Nazi guard testifies about Stutthof concentration camp

Stutthof camp living quarters in 1945
Almost 68,000 people perished in the Stutthof camp, including 28,000 Jews.Image: USHMM, courtesy of Muzeum Stutthof

After the verdict, Waterkamp said that the judge's words had hit his client hard and left him exhausted. He said Bruno D. had listened attentively throughout, as he had during the trial. "Not every defendant does that," he said. "He faced everything that was happening."

But Waterkamp was reluctant to say that Bruno D. had accepted his guilt, or whether he would appeal the sentence. "That he has to decide for himself now: Whether he can live with a conviction," he said.

"Even if you accept the verdict, it doesn't mean you necessarily accept your guilt," he told DW. "Legally yes, but personally not necessarily."

In a slight act of leniency, the court ordered Bruno D. only to pay for his own defense, not for the entire court case, which would have been financially crippling. All the other costs, including the expenses of the co-plaintiffs, would be picked up by the German state, Meier-Göring ruled.

Stutthof camp guard tower
The Stutthof concentration camp is now a memorialImage: picture alliance/NurPhoto/M. Fludra

Conditions in Stutthof

In January, Johan Solberg, a 97-year-old former Stutthof prisoner from Norway, testified in Hamburg that he had witnessed eleven executions personally, including the hanging of children, and watched around 100 prisoners a day, mostly Jews, being sent to the gas chambers.

The Stutthof concentration camp was the first to be established by the Nazi regime outside Germany's borders, and one of the last to be liberated. Situated near Sztutowo, a small town about 20 miles east of Gdansk, northern Poland, it was already operational as a prison camp a day after the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939.

Over the next six years, between 63,000 and 65,000 people, including 28,000 Jews, are thought to have lost their lives in Stutthof, either from epidemics, brutal working conditions, lack of medical attention, or executions and murder. Gas chambers were used at the camp after 1944, and many more prisoners lost their lives during the death marches towards the end of the war.

'I speak for the dead'

Last Nazi trial?

Though other investigations are still underway, the age of other concentration camp personnel still alive means it is likely that Thursday will turn out to be the last day that a German court passes a verdict on a Holocaust perpetrator.

Read more: Confronting a disturbing truth 'My father was in the SS'

Another former Stutthof guard, 95-year-old Johann R., was deemed too ill to be tried in February 2019, three months into his trial. Similarly, the trial of former Auschwitz medic Hubert Z. was suspended in Neubrandenburg in 2017, when he was 96, after he was diagnosed with dementia.

The last two Holocaust convictions in Germany are both over three years ago: In July 2015, the "bookkeeper of Auschwitz" Oskar Gröning was sentenced to four years in prison for 300,000 counts of accessory to murder by a court in Lüneburg. In June 2016, Reinhold Hanning, a former SS guard in Auschwitz, was convicted for 170,000 counts of accessory to murder by a Detmold court, though he died before his appeal could be considered.

Poland conducted its own Stutthof trials in the late 1940s, and convicted about 78 guards, some of whom were executed.

Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight